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Rated: E · Short Story · Dark · #2262668
Where’s the answer when you’re your own metaphor?
           So. Stupid.
           Avery crumpled the sliver of paper and flicked it onto the table as he shook his head. Weren’t fortune cookies supposed to make people feel better? There’s good news and bad news, it’d declared. That bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot. What did that even mean? Was it admonishment for his life, some sort of validation of what he’d already known? It was sneering at him; a cookie of mockery, really.
           The good news is you’re the pilot.
           He flapped air from his lips and flipped some cash onto the menu. As he pushed from the table, the awkward, wooden chair caught on the flaming orange carpet, and then he was flailing backward, time moving slowly as he considered how his death would play out right here. Avery hit the floor, and he was on his back in the chair, blinking as he caught his breath and held his tongue. The restaurant whipped to a stop around him, and the stares of patrons burned beyond his flushing face and incinerating his logic. And then there was a man and a woman standing over him; his waiter and the hostess.
           Am I bleeding?
           “Are you gonna be here long?” the twenty-something waiter asked. “My shift is over in a few minutes.”
           “Honestly? I’m not sure yet. Are my brains on the floor behind me?” He inspected his arms for cuts.
           “You go!” the hostess said. “You no live here!”
           “Pam, stop with the accent,” said the waiter. “You’re from Bowling Green. Your family’s been working at the Corvette factory since it opened. You’re more American than I am and somehow more racist than anyone I’ve ever met, and I’m from Crossett, Arkansas!”
           “People ain’t gonna eat here if they don’t git Asian authenticity!” she said with a whine and a glare as she returned to her lectern. Forks were scraping plates gathering the last of the lo mein, and conversations were murmuring, a normal lunch scene.
           “But, seriously, are you gonna be here long?”
           “Yes,” Avery said through pressed teeth. “I would appreciate a few minutes to regroup, yes. Your money is on the table.”
           “That’s all I needed,” the waiter said before vanishing. “Hey! This guy left me a twenty for a tip!” Avery heard as the kid ran to the back.
           “Even in Asian culture,” said a man from his right, “they eat at a table, not from the floor.” Avery let his head flop over to see who could’ve stopped to make this day worse. Was this priest here to kick Avery, maybe? Perhaps to give him a wet willy to the ear? Probably still wouldn’t be the worst part of his day.
           “I’m not really lookin’ to make friends right now,” Avery said.
           “Good. I’m not really lookin’ to be your friend.”
           “Excuse me?”
           “I’m not trying to be anything,” the other man said. He sat next to Avery, a man not much older. “I’m Rick, and I’m just whatever you need me to be.” He pushed his square, wire-framed lenses up his nose and then spread his hands apart, palms up.
           “I’d be careful with that offer,” Avery said. He turned his head to the fans once more. “Now’s not a good time.”
           “With respect, sir, you’re in a small-town Chinese kitchen sopping soy sauce from the floor into your clothes like some sort of monstrous wonton. When would be a good time to reevaluate, you think?”
            Avery sighed and moved his head again, resting it on the floor while he watched the fans.
           “Fair enough,” Rick said. "Are you okay? Did you hurt yourself?”
           “I think I’m as good physically as I’m ever gonna be. I’m just…overwhelmed.”
           “I get that, I think. It’s like…it’s like everything you thought served magic is plastic and fake, uh, almost as if life has cheapened itself.”
           “Yeah,” Avery said as he faced his new friend once more. His legs in the air, he crossed one knee over the other. “How is it that obvious?”
           “Look, I can’t make enough jokes about how self-referential your situation is right now. You put the ‘meta’ in ‘metaphor’. A meta-floor! Ha!”
           “I’m Avery. I wish I could not feel like this. I’m pretty sure I’m the worst person ever created. Nothing I do is good enough, not for anyone around me, not for myself…and not only all that, but it seems like, no matter my intent, I can only ever be this wreck of a mess.” Why were his thick emotions hovering in the air? Why couldn’t he stop talking?
           “Oh, I see,” Rick said. “You did something like organize the Nazi party and decimated a large percentage of a certain race. No? What could you possibly have done to be this hard on yourself?” He snapped his fingers. “You kept slaves in your attic and tortured them for your amusement, drinking the blood of their infants as alleged of LaLaurie? I bet you experimented with biological warfare like Shiro Ishii. You created your colony and then forced hundreds to commit suicide. Averytown?”
           “It’s none of those things, but your education’s saturated in monsters.”
           “I’m fascinated by the worst,” Father Rick said as he smiled.
           “Oh, no, I’m not intrigued by you at all. I mean, what do you think makes one ‘the worst’?”
           “I contracted HIV, and then I gave it to someone else,” Avery said staring at the empty table behind the priest.
           “Well, I can certainly think of other presents people would rather receive. Did you intentionally pass it along?”
           “I did not.”
           “Which means you just found out…you have it?”
           “Yeah,” Avery said. “I can deal with that part. It just is what it is. But I’ve replayed everything over in my head, and I don’t even know when it happened. I’m always careful. I’m not even social; it was my birthday!”
           “Our species has this misconception that life can be side-stepped,” Rick said. “To live, to really be human means taking risks for that one chance you might escape the cliff by barging into the sky with your new wings. I don’t know where we lost the idea that civilization equates the decay of our humanity, but life isn’t clean. It’s gross and disgusting; it’s moist. We were never intended for cautious experiences.”
           “If that was true, our species would have died out long before we’d be having this conversation.”
           “You function based on theories, don’t you? Ever stop to think that’s why you’re here?”
           Avery squinted, forcing his brow to tightness and creating wrinkles of consideration. Could this stranger be correct? There was merit in this new epiphany, of course, truth poking his brain with its stick. Maybe, just maybe, this explained the impossible standards for himself, qualifications enough to depress Christ with frustration.
           “Perception is reality,” Father Rick said. “To be honest, the people who constantly wash their hands contribute to sickness as much as those who rarely wash their hands. Besides, who wants to stand at the sink all day and miss life while making sure fingernails have no putrid particles? Life is meant to be lived, supposed to be experienced.”
           “But, I should’ve known,” Avery said. His words came out in broken breaths, and his vision blurred with tears.
           “Well, yeah, but we all should know everything by that measure. Or nothing at all. You can’t control what you don’t know. And here’s the secret everyone knows but won’t acknowledge: we can’t even control what we do know. You know how HIV spreads. You acted on that understanding, but something else happened. What else can you do?”
           “I could just…stop.”
           “Sure you could, but if you’re gonna stop enjoying life, you might as well take yourself out completely, right? Except…we all know what that gets ya.”
           “So, then what?”
           “The choice should be obvious. All you can do is treat yourself kindly and stand back up.”
           “I’m not gonna be nice to me. Nobody should be nice to me.”
           “Who are you hanging out with?” Rick asked as he scrunched his nose. “Who are your friends that make you feel this way? Or are you speaking from theories again? If you aren’t nice to you, I can promise nobody will be nice to you.”
           “What would God say about this?”
           “I dunno,” Father Rick said. He nodded his head. “Oh, the clothes, right. Yeah, I’m not actually a priest. I’m playing the nanny Matthias in the all-male version of The Sound of Music Sing-Along up the street in a few days. I’m just here for lunch.” Avery turned his face toward the fan. “Look,” Rick said, “I can’t speak for God, but I will speak on behalf of the Universal Spirit, and, maybe for you, they’re one and the same. But I know the Creator of All Things would look at you and tell you to suck it up, that you’re not the only person being shoved through this situation right this moment. It would affirm you are made by Divinity, and that this could’ve happened to you because you can handle it. It’s a great opportunity for you to learn your lesson, to go on to teach others. Are you aware of how much you know about responsibility in your actions right now? You know more than this entire state doubled. This isn’t a weakness, not this disease and not your life; it’s the crutch to find your strength, your own reasoning. Teach others to do better. Be the man to people you need right now. Be the voice you need to hear.”
           “But how?”
           “Take whatever tube of faith you have hanging out in a drawer in your heart, and adhere two pieces. Then do it again. And keep doing it until you’ve put every shard to itself. I mean, it won’t look the same, your life, and it might feel a little rougher when you caress it with your fingertips, but it’s there. You just have to get up and…do it. Hey, why don’t you come back with me to the auditorium? It’s time for you to meet some people who are in the same situation, or at least something close to it. And you’re in desperate need of learning to love yourself. I’ll introduce you to the cast.”
           “But I can’t-“
           “The last time I ate here, I got a fortune cookie sayin’ something about time flying with you as the pilot. That’s blown open when you realize a plane does more than go through time, it goes from place to place. Come find your plane. Figure out where you need to land.” The actor held his hand out, and Avery grasped it. He rolled over and stomped one foot onto the ground. He pulled, and his muscles discovered their strength. He righted the chair, and, when he pivoted back, Pam was holding a white plastic bag.
           “I can do this,” Avery said. “Maybe I can make the world better.”
           “Baby steps, Don Gay-xotè. You’ve got a lot of liking yourself to do first. Why don’t you tell me something about yourself you’re impressed with?” With food in hand, they turned and walked toward the door and the biting, slicing cold waiting for them in the street.
           “I’m a writer,” Avery said.
           “Actually, we might need your help with the script for our Sound of Music. The man playing Liesel is sixteen going on forty-seven, and the script is rough.” They opened the door and heard a woman explaining to her husband that the fortune cookie was right, that she was the pilot of their marriage. Avery and Rick looked at each other, and Avery raised his eyebrows. “Maybe there’s a lot more of us on the floor than we can see.” With a shrug, Rick led the way out.
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